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Too Many Cooks: 5 Indie Directors Throw Down for Scott King's "Treasure Island"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire September 24, 1998 at 2:0AM

King's "Treasure Island"
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King's "Treasure Island"

by Amy Goodman




Oh yeah, everybody's a director. It's nothing new. All over the
country, young boys and girls kiss Mom good-bye and, clutching suitcases
full of revolutionary scripts, go West, seeking fame, fortune, and
directorship. We used to have a better idea how to define "director,"
back when auteur theory was all the rage. Now, especially with the
proliferation of independent films, there are too many different kinds
of directors to reduce into a universal definition. Thousands of
directors make movies every year, some of them hired almost as an
afterthought, some spearheading some sort of guerrilla operation.


This summer, in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, Scott King shot such a film,
called "Treasure Island" through his company, King Pictures. King has
executive produced Miguel Arteta's "Star Maps," Robert Byington's
"Olympia" (which closed the 1998 Slamdance Film Festival) and a feature
documentary about Los Angeles history called "Shotgun Freeway," which
played at L.A.'s NuArt Theater and on PBS. "Treasure Island" is King's
writing and directing debut and is not related to the book at all; it is
a psycho-sexual black comedy about two war strategists that takes place
on San Francisco's Treasure Island naval base at the height of WWII. It
is a decidedly ambitious first film - a period piece ("old-timey" in
King Pics-speak) shot on a shoestring for five weeks, including one week
on location in San Francisco.


Adrienne Gruben, the film's producer, knew the challenge before her, and
sought to hire as skilled a crew as she could find, people who were
familiar with the trials of low-budget, first-time filmmakers.
Coincidentally, most of the key crew she found were directors. The
script supervisor, Robert (alias "Bob") Byington is the director of
"Shameless" (1995) as well as "Olympia," which opened the 1998 South by
Southwest fest, played at the Taos Talking Pictures fest and screened
unofficially at Telluride. The gaffer, Philip Glau, is the director of
"Circus Redickuless," a feature doc about a punk rock circus which has
also toured the festival route, including the current IFFM, New York and
Chicago Underground Film Festivals and South by Southwest.


Also on board was on set mixer Dante Harper, whose directorial debut,
"The Delicate Art of the Rifle," was one of the Fuel Tour's first films,
won Best Film at Chicago Underground Film Festival, and screened at the
American Cinematheque in July. First assistant director Abe Levy is the
director of a film called "13" (not to be confused with David William's
Berlin discovery "Thirteen") and is now looking for finishing funds and
a new title, while camera operator Jonathan Sanford's first film, "The
Big Charade
" played a number of festivals, including South by Southwest.


By the end of production, most of the 36-person crew agreed that this
was one of the best crews they had worked with. One week after wrap,
indieWIRE sat down with the six directors - Sanford, Levy, Harper, Glau,
Byington, and King, along with producer Gruben - to ask them a few
questions about the nature of directing, and the unique collaboration of
five directors on another director's directorial debut.


indieWIRE: Is the fact that there were so many directors working on
this film indicative of the fact that so many people are directing films
these days?


Dante Harper: They all nodded.


Bob Byington: Well, I don't know anyone who hasn't directed a film or
isn't directing one right now or isn't about to direct one in a couple
of weeks, so I think that's what it highlights more than anything else.


Philip Glau: Bob has a limited circle of friends.


Byington: That's why I'm getting out of Los Angeles.


iW: Who wants to speak to the benefits or drawbacks of working on a
film with this many directors?


Glau: It was good for Scott that we all have a tolerance for first time
director fuck-ups. Most films I've worked on don't have this many
directors. On most professional crews people do their jobs and that's
it. They're not directors on the weekend and electricians by night;
they're career electricians.


Byington: I told someone that it was kind of like camp, because instead
of taking all the director work home, I could just go home and not worry
about anything related to the production and I really liked that. I
found the process of shooting the movie invigorating without the
headache at the end of the day.


Harper: Everyone having the experience of making an independent film or
being heavily involved in the independent scene made a pretty tight crew
situation. Also, this was a real different kind of film; it was very
much Scott's vision. We shot on a vintage camera and it's not a genre
flick; it's very much an outsider film. That made it easier for
everyone to be involved because there was no moment when we could say,
"Well, I would do THIS."


iW: Adrienne, did you consider it risky to hire this many directors to
work on one film? What was your motivation?


Adrienne Gruben: I've noticed on films with first time directors that
the crew sits around with their fanny packs on saying, "If I were making
a movie, I'd do it THIS way." And there are so many problems with a
first time director that I didn't want the crew against the director; I
wanted some padding, so they'd all have some empathy for Scott in this
situation. Some of the people in this room can be cranky, namely a few,
but I hired people who I thought had matching personalities. I hired a
bunch of diplomats, basically, who had training in certain departments.


iW: Scott, how did you feel about having this many directors working
with you?


Scott King: Shockingly, everyone helped a great deal. I don't
understand being a director very well. What's the difference between
being a first time director and a tenth time director? I mean you are
thrown into a situation and all you do is make stuff up. Either you
make up stuff pretty good or you make up stuff pretty bad.


iW: Did you feel like you had a nice safety net, though?


King: Oh yeah. It was crucial. I know everyone thinks that I just
shot the movie that I wanted to shoot, but every day one of these
people said something like, "This won't work, you should do it this
way." Sometimes I would say 'no' and sometimes I would say 'yes.' Phil
did almost all the lighting in the movie and I was the DP partially in
name. As the writer, I came up with all the ideas, Jonathan set up all
the shots and Bob was the script supervisor and essentially directed the
actors. So, what does the director do? The director is nothing?


iW: You tell me. What makes a good director?


King: The director is the tenth most important person on the set. The
idea of giving the director this highest credit, in most cases, is a
joke. You don't do that much as a director, to be totally honest.


Glau: I disagree.


King: But you made a documentary film, Phil, which is totally
different.


Abe Levy: I disagree based on your performance, Scott. Most of the
time, you were saying 'no' to things, but that is important. A whole
bunch of people can throw shit on the wall, but you have to scrape off
the good shit. A director is there to make important decisions.


King: But if the director relies on the crew so much to do everything
right, then what is he or she really doing? The answer is not very
much. I think the writer is the most important person on the movie. I
did an interview with American Cinematographer, and they asked me
whether the cinematographer was a big help on the movie, and I said,
"Well, doesn't the director pick the shots?" They said that most of the
time, the cinematographer does, and I was appalled to hear that. I
mean, if the director isn't picking the shots and the script super
directs the actors, what the fuck is the director doing?


Harper: I actually know a guy here who does storyboard art and he is
sent screenplays that don't have directors or talent attached to them.
He storyboards them and then they find a director and cast it.


Levy: So it's really the storyboard artist...


iW: Or the producers.


Levy: Actually, I talked to a friend of mine who just story-boarded the
new Star Wars and he had the same opinion. I also know the AD on it
and she said that really, the two of them did most of the work.


iW: So do you think it helps if the director has broad technical
knowledge, or is he just a figurehead? Is there an important skill or
skills to have to be a director?


Byington: Don't dismiss the rehearsal process as part of the director's
responsibility.


King: But a lot of people don't do that or don't think that's
important. And a lot of it is up to the actors; they're doing the work.


Levy: I think that's the distinction between a first time director and
a really experienced director. A really experienced director will be
able to get the performance he wants out of the actors more readily than
a first time director. And almost all actors rely on the director to
help them get there.


Glau: There are two types of directors. There's a signature director,
like Lynch or Herzog, and then there's the generic director, whose job
it is to show up and sit in the chair and smile at his agent.


King: I'm liking the sound of that.


Glau: With a lot of TV or B movies, the director gets a script and is
told "Give it to the crew and they'll technically execute it." Scott,
you were definitely the DP on your film because I would have lit it
differently had it not been for you. He had a vision with the film that
he was responsible for and he enforced.


King: That's true. I wrote it and I story boarded it and I didn't
shoot coverage. I guess I also shouldn't denigrate directors in a group
of them because I'll just get in trouble. Anyway, I think it's
different in the independent world on this level of filmmaking, because
as a director, you do everything. If someone has to operate the camera
because the camera operator fell over then you do it. It's a very
different experience than directing a big budget movie.


Glau: Really, the only thing that distinguishes your film from the other
1,000 independent films made this year is your vision. You're not going
to blow them away with special effects or dazzle them with a big name.


iW: So broader technical knowledge is not that important?


Glau: It certainly helps. If you're going to walk onto a set -
especially on a smaller film - you better know how to do everyone's
job. I mean, how can you command their respect if you don't? They'll
just take control from you.


Levy: On a lot of bigger budget films, technical knowledge is not as
important. And there are a lot of great filmmakers who didn't
necessarily ever have technical training. Now, all of those people
going through film school get at least a cursory understanding of most
of the machinations of film. They know how to use a camera and load a
camera...


Gruben: I want to know if everyone was told 'no' all the time?


Jonathan Sanford: I think Scott knew most of the time how he was going
to shoot a scene before he came to the set, so the "no's" came when we
challenged his plan.


Harper: I think that's a good way to look at the process - as a process
of exclusion instead of inclusion. There was so much more that you
could have put in that you didn't. I've always said that directing is
like going to a restaurant and choosing what you DON'T want to figure
out what you do want... It's really confusing and weird to talk about
directing.


Sanford: It was ultimately everyone's duty to defer to Scott, but I
would have preferred that it was less calculated.


iW: Was there more improvisation or freedom in the shooting of your
film, Jonathan?


Sanford: NO! (Laughter) But after that experience, I learned that I
would prefer surprising myself in the shooting of the film to just
shooting the script.


Harper: I just saw that Aronofsky thing... "Pi," and a guy asked me
what I would ask him and the question that was in my mind was "When did
your movie happen? Did it happen when you were writing it? Did it
happen when you were planning it? Did it happen during production or
after? The fact is that a film could come together at many different
points and with "Treasure Island," it was clear that the film had come
together before we even got to set. It was great. It was very
different from many of our experiences and it was a very safe space to
learn something. I think also that one of the best things that came out
of the mess-of-directors approach is that we did get to have a couple of
conversations with people about process that had a big effect on me.
That wouldn't have necessarily happened on another set.


iW: Would you want to work on another director's film again?


Harper: I thought about that a lot, actually, because I think we may
have been a bit spoiled working on Scott's film. I have no desire to
watch someone make a dumb fucking movie and I think we all have an idea
of what a dumb fucking movie is. So, a big part of our ability to move
through the process of making Scott's movie was understanding that it
was not in the class of what we would identify as stupid. It was
something different and that's not easy to find. If someone paid us a
lot of money I think we would all do it, but I don't think we'd work on
a small budget movie like this if it weren't for these people.


iW: Has anyone ever worked on a period piece before?


Levy: I was actually going to shoot my film in period, but I figured it
would be too expensive and too tough so I decided not to. I think
that's another interesting thing about this film is that not that many
people would try to make a 1945 film with riots in downtown San
Francisco on this budget; and it was pretty correct period.


iW: You must have learned a lot in an abbreviated amount of time.


King: I certainly learned a lot about lighting. I walked on
understanding the theories, but by the end of the movie, after working
with Phil and really much of the crew, I understood a lot more. In the
beginning, I would say, "Put the big one over there, you know the big
round one...?" And then by the end, I had all the little terms...


Gruben: The first time I heard you say, "Can we throw a tweeny up
there?" you sounded like an L.A. Times commercial.


iW: Describe the aesthetic you were going for.


King: The movie's about people having sex with each other and swearing
and being incredibly racist and treating women like shit - and having
all of this bad stuff happening in the 1940's. It seems like every time
I see a period movie, I say, "Well, they got that right but they got
that wrong, because it's in color." I figured if I shot this in black
and white, in 1:33 format, and did all the lighting tricks you're
supposed to do, then people might actually for one second look at it and
think, "That could have happened back then. Maybe history isn't what we
thought it was. Maybe whatever perception we have of the truth is
wrong." That's what the movie is about anyway, that's its central
theme. So, the aesthetic we were going for is very important; I didn't
use it just to use it. Ironically, it would have been cheaper, given
the weird processing that we did with the film, to shoot it in color.
Most independent films shoot in black and white because it's inexpensive
and we did the opposite. But my one hope in making this movie was to
give people the feeling that they're watching something happening in the
past, even if just for a moment. That couldn't happen with color film.
I think people look at color film and say, "Where did they get those
cars?" or "Look at those costumes."


iW: What kind of lighting tricks are you talking about?


King: Phil can get into this. For example, I always wanted more
shadows. Shadows supposedly look bad, but back in the day when they had
lights that could block out the sun, they had no choice; they had to
shoot with shadows. Shooting with black and white, no matter where
someone was standing, there would be a mysterious light on top of their
head, which would separate them from the background - no matter what. We
had one in a closet in this movie, which was pretty ridiculous. So, you
lose the training you got that goes, "Every light must have a reason for
being there," and instead you say, "Where should the light go to make it
look nice?" Back then they were more interested in the composition or
form of the light rather than which window the light was coming from.
It was very stylized, which I really enjoyed. Phil? (Laughter)


Glau: It was... different. In the beginning, we argued back and forth
because it's not the way I would've done it. But towards the end I
would start putting up back lights and Scott would say, "Yeah! That's
right! They're in a car, they need backlights!" (Laughter)


iW: What about the issue of coverage?


King: I did shoot coverage a little bit.


Glau: Against your will...


Harper: I think that was the one place where there might have been some
tension, our being directors and Scott being a new director. We were
all familiar with the incredible pain of having something almost exactly
how you want it, and you could make it exactly what you want if only you
had a little bit more coverage. It was interesting that Bob took a
strong stand on Scott's side on that; Bob said essentially that when you
shoot coverage, you're cheating. I think that the jury's still
completely out on that.


Levy: Bob, is that the reason why you stood by Scott on that?


Byington: I did sometimes, but I didn't always stand by Scott. If you
cover every scene you have a sort of nightmare of nothing in the
editing room; you have everything but you don't have the scene anymore.
Scott, you were pretty clear on what you wanted, and I supported that.
I didn't like having choices in the editing room, in a way, on my own
film. That was perversity.


Harper: I hated not having choices in the editing room.


Glau: I like having as much coverage as possible.


Levy: With my film, there were scenes that I didn't cover at all and
scenes that I covered way too much. I was totally frustrated with the
scenes that I covered way too much because I didn't know what to do with
all the shit, and when I didn't have enough coverage I wished that I had
more. I think there's a middle ground that most people find as they
shoot more and more.


iW: Scott, I've heard you say that coverage ruined cinema.


King: Oh, absolutely. Coverage and deep focus - it's the same kind of
thing. There are a lot of deep focus movies that are really
interesting, but usually, the people who've made them - who use coverage
and deep focus - know what they're doing and why. A lot of people will
use deep focus because it seems easier, and then their movies end up out
of focus. I loved using shallow focus in this movie because I love the
idea of pointing to what I want you to see. You only see one thing and
everything else is sort of fuzzy, so you're not really sure what's going
on back there - I think it lends to the atmosphere of the movie and it
was a very conscious decision. I think that you need to have a reason
for your focus and lighting; you need to say, "I want the lighting to
look like this because I have THIS idea and this is what it should look
like."


iW: Is there anyone around today who makes movies that look like this
one?


Levy: We don't know what it looks like...


iW: Someone who uses shallow focus, no coverage, silk stockings on the
lens...


All: No.

Harper: I think that a lot of people right now in a lot of different
mediums are experimenting with not just genre but period on a structural
level, approaching ways to fuck with narrative...


iW: Are all of you working in the department you're most comfortable
and that you have the most training in?


Harper: I wouldn't say that. I told people that I was doing sound on a
feature because the sound recorded on my feature was a horror show.
Working on this film was like acting out a revenge fantasy to get the
sound I wanted to get on my film.


Gruben: It's weird that you say that, because I hired you because I
loved the sound design on your movie so much.
Harper: I was talking about the production sound. I spent a year
mixing to fix the production sound and sort of recreated the film from
the ground up. So, I do know a lot about how to fix awful sound and I
wanted to practice a part of a process that is invisible and important.


Glau: It's a valuable low budget production skill - fixing horrible
sound. I work in the lighting department mostly, but I'd rather be
editing. It's a young man's game, lifting heavy equipment, working on
set, and the older I get the younger the new people get who can lift it
faster. It's all about physical labor.


Sanford: I know more about camera than other jobs, but I'm not sure I
like camera operating. I'd rather direct. Aside from directing, I
don't know... Is that depressing? Can I start over?


Byington: I would like to say that the jury's still out on whether or
not this movie's going to be good and that's part of the terror of
making a movie. Scott talks about it being the greatest movie ever made
and I don't doubt that... (Laughter)


Glau: Actually, on stuff I've worked on before, Day 2 rolls around and
I think, "This is a piece of shit," but after six weeks of work on this,
I'm not sure yet, which is very rare. It's an interesting enough idea
and the script is weird enough and certainly the execution was
interesting enough and frankly the acting was really good. So, the fact
that it's still in the realm of possibility that it could be good - even
after finishing the whole movie - is pretty impressive.


Byington: Maybe this movie was made when it was written.


[Amy Goodman is a writer, Programming Coordinator for the 1998 Los
Angeles Independent Film Festival and a member of the 36-person crew on
"Treasure Island." She is currently on route from L.A. to New York
City.]